Report on Wastewater Treatment: Discussion.

The next item is the report of the joint committee. We want to discuss the regulation of wastewater treatment services in Ireland and related matters. On this issue, members will recall that we had several meetings before Christmas and we agreed to draft a number of reports. We now agree that we will come back and look at this.

A draft containing some regulations has been circulated by the clerk to the committee. Have members had an opportunity to consider this?

I propose that it be approved. Believe it or not, I read it.

Well done.

It is in line exactly with what we discussed here about the problems, particularly in rural areas, of septic tanks where people would be able to get certification of a product, which in this case is a septic tank, so that what they get is what is certified and that there would be a maintenance agreement over a period of time subsequently to ensure that it continues to work properly in the interests of groundwater protection. That will help people in rural areas get planning permission because this would become part of the circular from the Department.

It has been brought to my attention that where, for example, a person applies for planning permission on a site and a percolation test is done, and the permission is not given, it is abandoned or whatever, in a year or two if there is another application, another percolation test must be done on the same ground. If this is the position, it is wrong for the following reason. What will happen to make it more unsuitable a year or two years later than it was.

Soil conditions.

As far as I am concerned, it is another way of imposing additional costs on people trying to provide their own house.

A person must apply for planning permission again if he or she is refused.

I am aware of that. My point is this. Where Deputy Hogan, for example, as an engineer, carries out a percolation test for me, and the application is refused, I withdraw or whatever, if Deputy Scanlon comes along and wants to purchase the same site, I fail to understand why he would need to go to the cost of getting another percolation test. That is nonsense.

What would Senator Glynn recommend; that it should hold for at least 12 months but not forever?

There is a copyright issue as well. I got into a bit of a mix-up there recently.

That is a little like using a previous architect's drawing for a previous applicant without permission in the next application. Does Senator Glynn understand the point?

If Deputy Hogan, as an architect or an engineer, carries out a service for which I pay him, then that service is mine. If I want to transfer that service to Deputy Scanlon, Deputy Fitzpatrick or Joe Bloggs, I should be allowed to do so without additional costs being incurred by the person who will purchase it. The darn thing is done and that should be the end of it.

The main issue of concern to the Senator is the planning application. The planning permission relates to the site, not to the applicant.

Yes, and we are still discussing the site because the percolation tests relating to it would have been carried out. Regardless of whether someone purchases the site or if there is another applicant, the status of the site will not be altered.

Why not put in place a time limit?

If Senator Glynn gives me permission to make a planning application and allows me to use the percolation test, then it should be fine. However, I am aware of a case where a person applied for planning and used a percolation test. The individual in question eventually decided not to proceed, withdrew the application and then used the percolation test, without the permission of the original applicant, in respect of another application. A court case is currently in train in respect of this matter as a result of the fact that a copyright issue arises. However, if Senator Glynn, as the original applicant, gave permission for the test to be used, the planners in County Sligo will accept it because it relates to the site.

What are members' views of what happens in County Laois and one other county, where, as county officials, technicians carry out the tests? The function has been taken entirely away from the private sector such that there is no financial incentive for the person carrying out the test to ensure there is a positive result because he or she is also being paid to lodge the planning application. County Laois moved away from that system. Members may not agree but it is more objective because the technicians in the planning department carry out the tests on-site for a fee of €150. Private sector interests were removed from the system six or seven years ago and, in the interim, no one has complained about the way tests are carried out.

There is a conflict of interest in circumstances where an architect being paid to draw up plans in respect of a person's planning application is also — either personally or through an employee or by some other means — responsible for carrying out the percolation test. He or she would have a vested interest in the site in question passing the test.

I have no difficulty with that because the local authorities have a great deal of expertise at their disposal. However, I am referring to the fact that an additional cost is being incurred by Joe and Mary Citizen. We are supposed to ensure that costs remain low.

Due to the fact that percolation tests in County Laois are carried out by the local authority's technicians, they will remain valid for at least one year. If an application is refused on foot of road or house design matters——

That is a different issue.

——or if the same landowner returns eight or nine months later with a different client, the county council will accept the result of the test because its staff carried it out.

We could proceed with that on the basis of——

I am aware that many architectural technicians will not be happy with what I am proposing but it is right. It may, however, be a bit too much for members to accept.

I do not believe it is correct to say that councils accept private technicians' reports. Councils themselves eventually test the sites.

Is that correct?

They do not do that.

Due to the fact that conflicts arose between different reports, Kildare County Council directs its officials to take samples and test sites.

I do not wish to labour the point. It is incumbent on members to, where possible, eliminate the costs incurred by those trying to build their own houses. This is a clear example of an area in respect of which we could take action. A fee of €150 or €200 is a great deal of money if one does not have it. A person would be obliged to stand for a long period at the top of Grafton Street with his or her hand out before he or she would collect that amount. I propose that we ask the clerk to put this matter on the agenda for the next meeting because I would like to do more research on it.

We will go through the report and complete our discussion of most of it. We cannot adopt the report without discussing it. We may be able to make a satisfactory recommendation on the Senator's point, when we come to it.

I propose that we confine our detailed examination to page 10, which deals with the recommendations. Are page 2, the table of contents; the acknowledgments on page 4; the executive summary on page 5; section 1 dealing with background; section 2 — rural settlements in 21st century Ireland; section 3 — how wastewater treatment systems affect planning; section 4 — a host of problems for wastewater services; and section 5 — concerns from within the industry, agreed to? Agreed.

I will now read the recommendations, on page 10. We must read through these recommendations before we can approve them.

The joint committee recommends that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government take immediate responsibility for strategy to address the concerns above, and that local authorities police the industry in line with the recommendations set out below. It also recommends that the following steps be taken to remedy agreed problem areas as identified by the industry users:

The EPA code of practice must be published without further delay and incorporated into the building regulations guidance section;

I think that is the crunch issue. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Clear lines of responsibility and liability must be set out for each of the five stages of the on-site sewage treatment and disposal process, together with the provision of enforcement;

An improved site assessors' panel in each local authority area must be established.

This last recommendation deals with Senator Glynn's issue. I propose that we add at this point the words "where the sites are not being assessed by the local authority itself". Is this amendment agreed to? Agreed.

In counties Sligo and Leitrim there are panels.

That is good, but they do not exist everywhere. I have seen the odd case in Laois of people from outside the county doing the assessment.

We can now come to Senator Glynn's recommendation that so long as the assessment is carried out by an approved assessor the results should hold for 12 or 24 months.

I would like to get——

A wording.

No, I would like to know what is happening in the various local authority areas.

It is different everywhere. That is why we are here.

We can regularise matters but we must do so in a way that is fair, especially to a young man or woman who is trying to build his or her own house. There is no point in visiting additional costs on such people. This should not happen. If a site passes a percolation test it should not have to be tested again if it is sold two years later. That imposes an additional cost.

It is duplication.

It is crazy. I totally object to that.

Would Senator Glynn agree an assessment should hold for the period of a development plan, which is five years?

Yes, I would accept that.

An assessment carried out on a site should last for the duration of the county development plan.

If it is done by the approved assessor.

We must be fair. We must not open floodgates. The regulation must be right. We are assuming the percolation test is carried out in accordance with accepted standards. If that is the case, the lifetime of the development plan would be an appropriate period.

We will include a further recommendation that if a site assessment is carried out by an assessor approved by the local authority, its results should be valid for the remainder of the period of the county development plan.

Yes, where the result of the assessment is acceptable. The result could be negative.

One would also have to address the issue of a negative assessment.

There should be scope to ensure that issue is also addressed.

We do not have to put the issue to bed today.

Let us finish this. The principle of what the Senator is suggesting has been included in the recommendation. We are saying that once an acceptable assessment has been carried out by an approved assessor and approved by a local authority the result should be considered valid for the remainder of the period of the county development plan.

While that recommendation is good in theory there might be only one, two or six months remaining of a county development plan.

The matter could be considered in the context of the new plan.

The new plan changes the policy.

The new plan can be changed to include that rule. It is a local issue that does not require input from us. Deputy Fitzpatrick has made the point that if one's application is refused one cannot retest.

The recommendations apply in respect of a favourable outcome.

When the assessment of the site is favourable.

If the assessment is negative one is subject to review.

Yes, one can resubmit the application in due course. This provision will apply in respect of a site which passes the test. I believe that is what Senator Glynn is seeking.

Yes. If the site does not pass, it is then up to the individual to have it retested.

That is a different scenario.

Fine. Is that agreed? Agreed.

We now come to the next recommendation. A procedure is required to police EN certification, a European standard for treatment plants, which is coming down the tracks. Treatment plants coming in from abroad may not necessarily have the required efficiency for this country. There should be, therefore, some method of policing the EN certification. This is a quality certification that could be provided on a product produced in Germany. Under EU rules, a German certificate would normally apply here. We are recommending to the Department that a method be introduced to police certification of these products. Is that agreed? Agreed.

An approved system designer panel is required in each local authority. In other words, somebody must select appropriate equipment and design suitable disposable sites. In other words, we are again saying the council should have an approved list of proprietary treatment systems to which local authorities must adhere. A list of qualifications required by the certifiers and installers in each local authority should be established and somebody must sign off on an installation and take responsibility for it. Deputy Hogan continually raises the question of who is responsible for this work.

An approved inspection enforcement panel is required in each local authority area. A database of all systems is required, possibly similar to one in respect of the Shannon River Basin district project. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has already outlined these steps in its circular SP503 but this has not been set up. Some local authorities are considering carrying out assessments under the water quality directive on septic tanks already in the ground. This has already commenced. There is nothing new in this.

All of this will be important between now and 2015 because of the water framework directive. We are heading off a great deal of problems if we can get in on time and provide assistance to people to upgrade their septic tanks to an appropriate standard. This will ensure no issues arise in respect of fines in 2015.

This is a good recommendation, namely, the introduction of an incentive to upgrade existing systems which are creating pollution. There is already in existence a scheme through which one can obtain a grant for installing a well. Perhaps then an incentive could be provided to encourage people to upgrade old sewerage treatment plants.

A new scheme, similar to the scheme in respect of the provision of a new well, could be introduced.

Currently, one can get a grant of €1,000 to upgrade an old well. A similar scheme in respect of upgrading treatment plants could be provided. One could use the grant obtained in respect of either upgrade. Often, one's well could be working and one's septic tank could be causing problems.

We are recommending the introduction of an incentive in this area.

We now come to the conclusions. Members of the joint committee are genuinely surprised at the absence of regulation in this area and at how strongly this impacted rural communities and industry players. Sympathy could be extended to those whose applications for planning permission were refused on the grounds of inadequate waste water systems. However, An Bord Pleanála should also be treated sympathetically when one considers the legitimacy of its blocking planning where there are threats of contamination to water resources in a highly unregulated activity. We will change the wording.

Should be sympathetic.

Yes. Should be sympathetic. No, we are saying we are sympathetic to those who cannot get planning permission because their sites fail. We also have to acknowledge the role of An Bord Pleanála if it has a reason. I think we will drop that sentence. Let An Bord Pleanála fight its own corner. That is all I have to say about it. They are big boys. Besides, the majority of cases do not get to An Bord Pleanála as most are ruled out at local level, so the role of An Bord Pleanála only involves appeals.

The joint committee agrees that in compiling this report there is an urgent need for action and calls on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to implement its recommendations in full and take full ownership of the much sought after regulation. People are looking for this. New systems of certification and compliance with building regulations are possible and have been suggested by the National Consumer Agency so there are practical ways forward. In addition, members point to the improvement in electricity services to users brought about by the enhancement. Similar regulations are now required for this similarly essential service.

The joint committee calls on the Minister to provide for effective standards in replacing SR6 guidelines and manuals with new legislation, joined-up regulation in the industry, particularly between site assessment and system installation, and guarantees must be made available as to the performance and durability of the system. For example, if somebody designs a septic tank, he or she must provide a credible certification. This, by definition, includes site inspection as a plant cannot be certified without inspection and there must be effective policing of the industry. Are we agreed to adopt that report as amended?

Is there any way we could mention communities where there is a cluster of householders within a community who want to provide a treatment plant for themselves as they cannot do so at the moment because it is too expensive? For instance, in a case where two houses are being built by two family members, they could be encouraged to use the one treatment plant rather than providing two treatment plants or three, four or five. Could the committee make a recommendation on this matter?

That is allowed in Kilkenny. However, the difficulty occurs when the house is subsequently sold.

I am sure all these matters could be dealt with legally.

County Laois would not allow two houses to operate from the one plant.

The fact they would not allow it should not stop us from recommending it should be done.

Is it good or bad practice?

It is all right if neighbours are neighbourly but if anything goes wrong, it is a serious situation.

If a row arises between the two householders and that is the principal reason, there could be a problem. However, a cluster development arrangement should work. Eight is defined as a cluster development in the Kilkenny development plan.

A family group building three or four houses all with their own individual septic tank seems to be a little much when one tank would do them all.

They have the opposite view in our county. It is too contentious to get into. Is the report, as amended, agreed? Agreed. We will formally approve the final text at the next meeting. We have made a few minor changes but it is agreed bar the title. Can we agree that it is amended? Agreed.

We trust the Chairman.

I am not proposing to launch this document, we will just lay it before the Houses. Members may comment if they wish. The clerk to the committee will circulate the final draft with the minor amendments and lay it before the Houses, as amended, as passed here today. I think we have done enough at this stage. Is there any other business?

Perhaps we could ask at the next meeting that we identify for the research people what projects we want to do. I would like to raise some issues under planning. I seem to have a thing about planning. In my county last week, An Bord Pleanála refused to grant planning permission for the construction of 30 houses which allowed for the provision of approximately 17 acres for community gain, a site for a school, a sewage treatment plant and a range of facilities. I am fearful that the refusal could be linked with the guidelines the Minister introduced early this year covering the number of houses permitted in smaller villages.

The regional planning guidelines.

Yes. This is a small community in which the majority are in favour of such a development. I have a few other examples that I would like to mention at the next meeting. There were job creation projects that did not get permission because they would not take place on zoned land. I contend these projects would not be suitable in towns and villages but would be more appropriate to a country area. How does one zone land in a country area? If this policy is continued, it will denude rural areas of small industry. I also have an issue about old farm buildings where there is potential for industrial development. Most local authorities only grant permission for industrial development to a landowner. The landowner is probably retiring and unable to set up a business. Somebody must come in and do something that is appropriate to the area.

How do we progress the matter?

At the next meeting I would like to mention these matters as part of our discussion.

We will consider it.

I also know of projects An Bord Pleanála has rejected on the basis of one objection from a person who may not be living within 20 miles of the proposed development. We need all the jobs we can get. An Bord Pleanála should be pro-development to try to have some work done again in the building industry. Another issue with An Bord Pleanála that annoys people is that an inspector visits a site and decides whether a development should get planning permission. The board which contains members who may not know the county, never mind the site, can overrule the inspector. That is causing considerable annoyance and is not good enough.

We will discuss the matter at the next meeting.

I come to the last item under Any Other Business. Following our meeting with the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland in February, we wrote to the local authorities to establish the steps each was taking to protect the public from radon. We suggested they be given a more active role in this regard. I propose to circulate a summary of their replies to date for our next meeting and allow copies to issue to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland to seek its opinion before we make a report and recommendations to the Minister. Is it agreed to forward the replies we received from local authorities to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland? Agreed.

We will adjourn until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 May, when representatives of the Just Forests organisation will appear before the committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 May 2009.